Read A Posse of Princesses Online

Authors: Sherwood Smith

Tags: #ya, #Magic, #princess, #rhis

A Posse of Princesses (23 page)

BOOK: A Posse of Princesses
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Shera cast a glance at Rhis, then said, “You
look funny. What are you thinking?”

Rhis said. “I just realized I’m
grateful.”

“For?”

“I didn’t think anything could make me glad
to go home to Elda’s lectures again. But hearing about this custom
just did it.”

Shera smothered a nervous giggle.

Taniva finished tucking the blue-gemmed blade
back into her waistband under her smock, where it stayed out of
sight. “So this is why I am only stable girl when we go inside, and
why I hide my face when you speak. And why I will be one to find
pest-princess. I already know my way around.”

Then she kneed her horse and dropped back in
line.

“I wish she’d told us that before,” Shera
muttered. “I hope they don’t have posted signs about royal thieves
all over the place, with her face painted on, and her name in big
letters.”

“Shh,” Rhis whispered, trying hard not to
laugh.

When they reached the foot of the bridge,
suspicious guards eyed them, one even poking through their
saddlebags in a cursory way as Dartha did the speaking. All the
High Plains people knew Damatran speech, as they were taught to
know their enemy. A few words seemed familiar to Rhis.

They were waved on.

Rhis had thought the subliminal rumble she
heard was her heartbeat, but as they slowly moved to the middle of
the bridge, the mighty waterfall came into view, white spray
reaching as high as the ridge. Above rose the enormous mountain,
and behind it, ranges of even higher mountains, their ever-snowy
tops gleaming coldly in the sun. Just like in Nym.

She did not find the sight comforting:

There aren’t a whole lot of possibilities
for escape,
she thought.

oOo

Despite Rhis’s worries and tension, at first
everything went pretty much as Taniva had outlined. They rode in
without more than a glance from the many guards. Not all of them
had yellow hair and pale skin, as Rhis had feared—she did not want
to stand out and be considered suspicious. There were dark-haired
Damatrans as well as light, and a variety of skin colors, though
mostly on the pale side. There were plenty with the golden skin of
the High Plains, which made Rhis suspect that, even though the two
kingdoms were enemies, people had probably been mixing over time,
so it wasn’t so unusual to have a mother from one kingdom and a
father from the other.

Anyway, no one seemed the least interested in
Shera and Rhis’s browner skin, or their round eyes, so unlike the
slanty ones and broad faces to be seen in infinite variety around
them. Still, Rhis was glad of the unusual clothes and braids. She
suspected that her own clothes might have caused some second
looks.

They followed the traffic down the broad
street between slate-roofed stone buildings (shops below, living
quarters above) that led to the castle, and at those gates, again
Dartha did the speaking for them. Rhis, this time stepping close
enough to hear all the words, was interested to discover that the
Damatran and the High Plain languages did sound a lot alike.

They were shunted off into what appeared to
be a servants’ area inside the huge stone castle, again reminding
Rhis of home. Only this one was enormous, with far more people
lining in it than in her own home castle.

Rhis looked around—smelled the familiar tang
of slightly moldy stone—and discovered for the first time in her
life that she really didn’t much
like
stone castles.

The horses were left with Taniva at the
stable, and they followed a group of people whose clothes were a
lot like theirs—in a variety of colors—to an entry-way lined with
doors. The people in front, all laden with enormous bags of
foodstuffs, were waved off in one direction. The guard looked them
over with a slightly puzzled frown, his brow clearing when he saw
the tiranthe and hand drum. The girls were waved another way.

Eventually they ended up in a room with a
miscellany of people, all of whom shared only one characteristic,
they were to be interviewed before being sent along to whatever
they’d come for.

Rhis was again reminded of home. Nym had had
too many troubles in its past for wandering players to be admitted
to the king’s or queen’s presence without an interview first. There
had been more than one assassination attempt by pretend
entertainers.

But by the time the harassed woman in charge
of such things got to them, the lamps had all been lit, or
glowglobes clapped on, and the wafting smells of spiced rice and
braised fish made it clear the castle workers were all going in to
supper.

“We will see your offering tomorrow,” the
woman said slowly in two or three languages, adding grimly, “We are
now in need of such.” She made a warding sign at the window—which
afforded a view of that enormous tower.

Rhis was surprised at her tone, and the
gesture, as they were shooed off to a long barracks room with
narrow wooden beds and bumpy hay mattresses. They were offered
blankets, which looked too thick and scratchy (they were wool) for
summer, even the cool summer of the mountains. So, after each of
them had gratefully stepped through the cleaning frame and felt
grit and grime snap away from their bodies and clothes, and after
they’d passed all their travel clothes through, they curled up in
now-clean cloaks and lay down beneath the wide-open arched windows.
The Damatrans seemed to believe in plenty of fresh air, and the
summer’s heat evaporated rapidly so high in the mountains.

Rhis tried to compose herself to sleep, but
she was far too nervous and excited. Also the room was full of
noise. Not loud noise. But here a wooden bed frame creaked as
someone tried to find a comfortable position on what had to be an
extra-bumpy mattress, and there someone snored; farther down the
long rows of beds someone else coughed, and at the other end a pair
of girls whispered—and everyone around uttered sharp “Sh!”s which
were much louder than the whispers.

Rhis finally realized what made it impossible
to sleep: though the three High Plains guards were with the other
two princesses and her, Taniva still had not joined them.

She was worrying about Taniva’s saddlebag and
dreaming about searching for it without realizing she’d dropped
into a restless sort of slumber when a hand on her shoulder jerked
her awake.

The dormitory was silent, except for the
sounds of deep, heavy breathing. Weak silvery light in the high
windows barely outlined a face with looped braids.

“Huh?” Rhis mumbled.

The shadow bent close. “It be me,” Taniva
whispered, her breath warm on Rhis’s forehead. “You come. Now.”

Rhis rose, reached for her saddle-bag.
Sleepiness vanished as she joined the others, all carrying their
gear. No one spoke. With soundless steps they made their way out of
the dormitory.

Taniva led them down a couple of twisting,
turning halls, past an area that smelled of baking bread. Light
leaked from below closed doors, behind them came sounds of people
moving about.

Twice they stopped, each time to wait for
slow-walking sentries to wander past. Taniva kept them pressed
still and flat against the cold stone walls until the sentries
rounded corners, then she sped off in the other direction, followed
by the rest of them, Rhis and Shera laboring under their
saddlebags. Yuzhyu and the High Plains people did not seem to
notice the extra weight.

Though Rhis’s mind bloomed with questions,
Taniva did not speak until they’d traversed what seemed to be an
entire city’s worth of plain stone hallway. Again they waited for
sentries to pass, and then started up the narrow stone steps of a
tower.

On a landing, Taniva stopped.

“Guards outside now. She is up here.” A jerk
of the thumb toward the top of the tower.

Rhis understood at once. Iardith was
imprisoned at the top of the tower. They’d get her out, take their
stuff to the stable, and as soon as the gate opened, they’d ride
out. Nobody, she hoped, would care whether or not a bunch of girls
had had their audition—not if they could get away before the
princess was discovered to be gone, and the alarm went up.

“Hurry,” she said, and Taniva whirled around
and started up the stairs three at a time.

The others trundled after, soon breathing
hard and sweating under their loads.

But at last they reached the top landing,
which was just a narrow space before a sturdy wooden door. Taniva
gestured to one of her guards, who brought something out of a
pocket, edged past Yuzhyu, knelt, and inserted something into the
lock. In the faint moonslight lancing down from the slit window
above, Rhis couldn’t make out what she was doing—but a few
heartbeats later the guard gave a grunt of satisfaction and the big
door swung open.

The tower room had windows all around,
flooding it with silvery-blue light.

Iardith sat up in bed, her long black hair
braided for the night.

She clapped.

“No—too late at night for light—guards get
suspici—” Taniva began, but it was too late.

The light from the wall-mounted glowglobe was
blinding to their dark-adjusted eyes. And of course the light would
be visible to anyone outside who cared to look up at that broad
arched window.

But that was only a fleeting thought. Because
though Rhis had from time to time imagined Iardith’s reaction to
their appearances as rescuers, she’d always thought the princess
from Arpalon would welcome them with relief . . . fear . . . joy .
. . all expressions difficult to imagine on that beautiful
face.

What they got was sardonic disgust, as
Iardith said with cordial sarcasm, “You
idiots!

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

“We’re here to
rescue
you,” Shera
exclaimed.

Iardith flung back a shining loop of braid.
“Do you really think that
I
am stupid enough to need
rescue?”

The group stood there aghast—except for the
guards, who didn’t follow the rapid conversation. One stood at the
door, the other two outside on the landing.

Then Taniva burst into laughter, slapping her
knee. “
You
abduct
him
!”

Iardith gave a kind of sour laugh. “Let’s
just say that I let him take me away.”

The Damatran guards outside were definitely
efficient enough to care to look up: Dartha entered, saying, “They
come up stairs.” And gripped something inside her clothes, her face
grim.

There was no way out; would the women really
fight?

Rhis felt dazed and sick as she looked down
at her—

Moving fast, she pulled her tiranthe from the
saddlebag, and while the others stared at her as if her wits had
flown, she began to strum in a fast, crazy manner.

Before she could speak, Taniva snapped her
fingers. She laughed silently, beckoning to her guards. “Sing!
Dance!” she ordered.

Yuzhyu, breathing fast, pulled out her hand
drum and began to tap it; the two older guards were blank-faced as
they clapped, but Dartha grinned, a quick flash that was a lot like
Taniva’s grin. She began twirling in between the others, dancing
round the handsomely furnished cell as if she did this sort of
thing every day.

Shera began to sing the song that Rhis
played. Rhis joined in, ignoring the dryness of her throat.

And so, when four guards entered, swords in
hand, it was their turn to stare in amazement.

Iardith still looked sardonic, but at least
she played fair. She crossed her arms across her front, not the
least discommoded to be found sitting up in bed in her nightgown,
as she said loftily, “I wanted some music.”

The guards turned eyes of various pale shades
from the regal princess to the group of players who plied away,
ending a song and plunging into another. Dartha danced toward them,
forcing them to lift the ready swords and step back.

One of them gave a faint shrug, said a single
word, and they withdrew—relocking the door behind them.

Rhis lifted her hand, but at Taniva’s quick
gesture, she resumed playing.

“Do not stop,” she said, pointing to the open
windows.

“That was fast thinking,” Iardith said
cordially. “But if Jarvas is the one to come up here to investigate
in the morning, he’ll recognize you at once.”

Taniva retorted, “Then will ask why you do
not recognize us.”

“I will of course say that all servants look
alike,” Iardith snapped back.

Rhis glanced at her group—how very different
they were from one another—and snorted a laugh despite her wildly
beating heart.

Iardith added, “Besides, it won’t really
matter what I say. Jarvas does what I want.”

“So you can want him to send us away,” Shera
said, as Rhis kept strumming the tiranthe.

“Oh, yes,” Iardith said with an indifferent
shrug. “At least you did come. Though I wonder why? No matter. You
can go right back, with some messages to the rest of those fools.
Beginning with that disgusting little toad, Dandiar the Scribe. So
I shall always think of him.”

Rhis felt her sympathies swinging—quite
unreasonably, she reminded herself firmly—to the real Prince Lios.
Beside her, Yuzhyu looked down at her drum, her face crimson.

Iardith never even glanced her way.

“So you find out,” Taniva said. “Hah!”

“He told you?” Shera asked curiously, her
brow crinkled. Rhis wondered if Shera, like Rhis herself, imagined
Dandiar confessing the truth before a marriage proposal.

But Iardith said, “
He
didn’t.” She
looked up at the windows, her long, pretty fingers twiddling with
her braid in a rare fussy gesture, then she dropped her hands into
her lap, making one of her graceful poses. “Lios did. Or whatever
that lackey calls himself.” And in a calm voice, as if describing
an everyday occurrence, “The party was about to end, and the fool
had yet to come to the point. Since the world knows I cannot go
home empty handed—I have to marry a crown, and my own honor demands
that it be a better one than my father’s—I followed him to his room
after the concert. I thought a little flirting and romantic talk
would hurry him along. But as soon as I tried to kiss him, he
panicked. As he should! He knew right well what my father would do
if some servant tried to flirt with
me
.”

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